Imaging Technologies

Guiding brain cancer surgery with customized mass spectrometry

People with brain cancer who have been diagnosed with gliomas and meningiomas may soon benefit from a transformative surgical tool that will detect cancer at a molecular level and help neurosurgeons more precisely and comprehensively remove cancerous tissue. A mass spectrometry-based tool developed at Purdue successfully identified the cancer type, grade and tumor cell concentration in a prior collaboration with Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Now, research continues in collaboration with neurosurgeon Dr. Aaron Cohen-Gadol and the Indiana School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

Gliomas and meningiomas account for about 65 percent of all brain tumors and 80 percent of all malignant brain tumors, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. “Brain tumor tissue looks very similar to healthy brain tissue, and it is very difficult to determine where the tumor ends and the normal tissue begins," says R. Graham Cooks, member of the Center for Analytical Instrumentation Development and the Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry. "Molecular information beyond what a surgeon can see can help them precisely and comprehensively remove the cancer."

Current surgical methods rely on the surgeon's trained eye with the help of an operating microscope and imaging from scans performed before surgery. Pathological examination of specimens taken from the brain during surgery provides the most specific information about the tissue and diagnosis of the cancer. However, this examination of frozen sections takes about half an hour, which is too long for it to be useful in examining multiple samples and guiding surgery.

Through mass spectrometry, all of this information can be obtained from a biopsy in a matter of minutes and without significantly interrupting the surgical procedure, according to Cooks. The analysis of tissue smears removes the constraints of having to freeze and section tissue, which makes this tool capable of being used intraoperatively.

The new tool, which Cooks developed, couples desorption electrospray ionization (DESI) and a mass spectrometer with a statistical program and uses the results to characterize the brain tumors, predicting if it is healthy or cancerous tissue. The tool sprays a microscopic stream of charged solvent onto the tissue surface to gather information about its molecular makeup. Additional classification methodologies and metabolite biomarkers could be added to tailor the tool to different types of cancer, Cooks says. N-acetyl-aspartic acid which improves the ability to detect gliomas is a prime example.

The next step in translating this new tool is to perform these measurements in the operating room while the tumor is being removed, and such experiments have begun.

- Elizabeth K. Gardner, Purdue News Service

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